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Interview: Kicking The Tyres Of GRID Autosport

Hot Wheels

Race Driver GRID still stands as a benchmark for racing games. Way back in 2008 it drove a path between sim and arcade, offering powerful, weighted cars in a structure that was approachable and accessible.

GRID 2 skidded off that path. It pushed too far into accessibility and bundled weak handling with a tedious structure. Now GRID Autosport is out at the end of June - barely a year after GRID 2 - and it comes with a promise of going back to the magic of 2008, but leaning even further to the "sim" side. Being an avid sim racer, I caught up with Clive Moody (Senior Executive Producer) and James Nicholson (Chief Game Designer) to talk in-depth about tyre simulation, ride heights, commanding teammates in endurance races and more.

RPS: In your press release, you say that Autosport is getting closer to a sim but without being clinical about it. I just wondered if you could explain what that means exactly?

James Nicholson: Yeah. It's still a Grid game fundamentally and Grid games are always games, they're not simulators, so what we're trying to do is recreate that feeling of what it feels like to be a racing driver as opposed to, you know, simulating every aspect of it. That’s not to under credit our quality of what our underlying simulation can do; it's a very, very detailed physical simulation, but tuned to recreate a game experience on top of that.

When we refer to making it, I guess as a bit more simulation, it doesn’t mean that were making it a simulator, it's just relative to what we've done in the past. It moves the needle a little more in that direction.

Mostly really the handling experience I think, and obviously the type of racing is a little bit more motor sports focused that we've done through the years, and those two things combined give it that more, certainly a more simulation feel, but it's still very much about creating an authentic racing experience that is still a videogame. It's balanced as a videogame, has the same kind of progression and challenge as you would expect from a videogame and that’s a really important thing for us.

Moody: James kind of hit the key word there, one that’s been banded around a lot, the authenticity has really been one of our 'watch words' if you like, that’s what we are trying to do with the game and everything that’s in there is measured against that. So authenticity doesn’t mess around, but it doesn’t mean we have to do something really drab or really clinical.

RPS: Where would you say you draw the line at, because obviously you want your cars to be authentic but also you don’t want them to be too authentic. I don’t really know where that line is where it stops being "authentic" and starts being too real.

Nicholson: I think it's quite a difficult one to put into words really. A lot of it is gut instinct and feel.

I think the best way would be to illustrate it with an example. So the way we tend to balance our cars, we have very detailed physics simulations, and we tend to start with pretty much the real world values. Then what we would do is research them, capturing what it is that is unique about those vehicles and then work into those values until they start to feel right and handle correctly from a game play experience point of view.

So it could be making something a little bit less wild than it is in real life, it could be that we try and emphasise the values. Perhaps if we are hearing that it's particularly tail heavy in its character in real life, that may not carry through to the play directly, so we might want to work that into that car set up until we are feeling that character conveyed in the games controls.

The thing is people forget with simulators is you're not really privy to all the things that act on a driver while racing. There are no G-forces acting upon the body, you've not got that same situational awareness you get in the cockpit of an actual car.

So we have to make different approaches for it to work in a videogame. So we have to move the camera around and we have to use force feedback in the pad, in the wheel to kind of convey what the car is doing so we have to kind of continue that all the way through the car, through the handling and the set up of it.

So that’s kind of what we mean, we don’t try and create a simulation, we try to capture the feeling of what it's going to be like and convey that through the way we set the game up, we balance the game and so on. There’s loads of other example in terms of how we set the game mode up, for example the way in which we tune the AI itself.

RPS: I was going to ask you about the feedback that you were getting from the drivers because obviously, my expectation would be that if they say a car can get quite loose in the back end, you'd push that maybe further to give it almost a caricature of the car, but it sounds like you are toning them down and pushing the extremes more through camera feedback and things like that.

Nicholson: There’s not really a one-size-fits-all, to start with really it depends on which car it is and what experience we are trying to relay. I mean if we were taking say, the sort of feedback we were getting from someone like Matt Neal coming in, he was obviously used to racing with a pack of touring cars. He'll describe things like over taking behaviours and defensive moves better than other drivers and that kind of thing.

What we found was a lot of drivers and those guys at Autosport Magazine we work with, a lot of them are gamers. Some of them got into auto-based sports they were passionate about through playing the games. So they are quite able now to say, "I'm getting what you're trying to do, see if you can try and do this experience. These are the things that are missing and I would be looking for." So a great example, when the Autosport Mag guys came in, we did a lot of work with slip angle of the car, the way the grip fell off and they gave us loads of really good feedback about that and the character of the cars, and we tried a few prototypes out and we fixed it.

But it was also the little observations like the way in which they were looking for feedback on the traction under braking, so we tried some things out with the audio there to actually give you, not feedback when the traction is actually gone, but actually just starting to hear the tyres squeal as you were approaching that point of breaking traction, and it made all the difference in terms of the way the handling model was picked up and played by people.

RPS: You've got assists back now if I read that right?

Nicholson: Yeah.

RPS: So how would you compare Autosport with all of its assists on, and off, to games that already exist, discounting Grid and Grid 2?

Nicholson: I don’t know, it's difficult to do a direct comparison.

I think we go quite extreme at the easy end of the spectrum and the level of assistance we have on. We've got a lot of very accessible assists in this game. We've not really done this level of assistance for quite some time to the extent that we've got proper steering assistance and speed assists and that kind of stuff is pretty extreme. I’m not aware of other racing games that would do that level at the base end.

I think what we wanted to get right this time compared with say Grid 1, [is we] wanted to make sure you if you took all the assists off there was still a very rich handling model there. I think Grid 1 really, hit its peak spot when you play with the ABS on. When you took that off it doesn’t run so well.

But with this game, the under-lying handling model is a lovely balance between the arcade and sim end of spectrum and the assists you layer on that are genuinely helping you out.

We've built new things like stability control and traction control into this game that it didn’t have before. And those really cancel out some of the more extreme cars in terms of wheel spin and that sort of thing.

I don’t really know how to position it against another game, exactly, because each other game, those assists are there for different reasons than ours.

Moody: I think really important element about it is the base handling was always built with none of the assists on, they are there to layer on top of it so you know that this is a very pure experience if you wanted to take everything off, it's one which we've based the entire experience and handling on with the cars.

RPS: You mentioned speed assist there, is that a new thing that’s different from automatic braking?

Nicholson: Yeah, it's not just the brake controls it's also automatic acceleration as well so it really helps in that regard.

RPS: That sounds interesting. I’m going to get a bit technical about tyres if that’s alright?

Nicholson: Yeah yeah.

RPS: I wanted to find out how much detail there is because your obviously very key on, "it's not a full simulation experience for handling," but I wondered how much detail is still going into your tyre models? It's probably one of the most important aspects in how cars behave.

Nicholson: Yeah, it's the single biggest things that’s changed in this game, compared to what we have done in the past.

At the point we got the community in to play the game, we had a tyre model that was very similar to what we had done in Grid 1. We had a very sharp cliff where the grip fell away, so as you approach the slip angle we didn’t get a lot of warning that it was going to break, and when it did, the car fell away pretty fast, and the same was true with wheel spin as well. The wheels span out, you would suddenly reach that point where the wheels were really spinning quite freely and the cars snap away from you.

The feedback we were getting wasn’t directly 'you need to change this about your tyre model', but it was all circling this idea that people weren’t really feeling that point at which the traction starts to break, so what we started to do is prototype some new tyre models. We've got some quite sophisticated tools really in terms of handling that we used to simulate all this stuff.

And we have had tyre wear and grip models that we can use, so we started to work into those and try a few out in a quite conservative way, and had some pretty ambitious ones that we settled somewhere in the middle once we'd tried it out on quite a few people. That was the single biggest change really for the handling style of this game.

RPS: I know you were saying, in the release anyway, that you were putting tyre degradation in there, or at least for endurance races. I wondered if that was just a feature of endurance races or that was always the case no matter what you are doing in Grid?

Nicholson: It was just for endurance racing, so with endurance racing what we wanted to do is the same approach as what we talked about already, it's trying to get you to feel what it would be like to be an endurance driver.

So what we're not going to make you do is stay awake for 24 hours and swap the driving seat with 2 other guys to get round the track and so on, but we want you to think tactically, we want you to think in terms of racing smoothly and consistently for a longer race, so that’s where the tyre wear kind of came in.

So the idea there is that you'll fall away much faster if you are breaking traction and if you are skidding and if you are going off track. If you are cutting the rumble strips and that sort of thing, you'll see the tyres wear more, but if you are smooth, you control your breaking and keep straight line, accelerate smoothly it won't wear any where near as quickly.

So it allows you to strategize, you know you can go on the attack early and hold on later and you can obviously do the opposite and really look after your tyres and attack at the end or somewhere in between really whatever works for you.

But the key thing there is you're thinking, you've got a strategy you might have to adapt it for that particular race and the AI are doing the same thing as well, you'll see cars pull away and really fall away at the end of the race and make mistakes and that kind of thing and you'll see guys that will attack and will suddenly have this real push for the last couple of minutes of the endurance race.

So this kind of will lead you in, I'm sure we'll talk about more aspects of this later in terms of really setting up very different racing experiences and making you race very differently.

RPS: How would you then say that in both endurance races and a standard "open wheeler" race, how would you say that the cars behave differently between lap 1 and 10?

Nicholson: If you’ve got full damage on and manual gears on and you are constantly over revving the engine, you will start to see the gear box starts to degrade a little bit through a race - especially on a very long race. You might see things like the clutch kind of gets a bit sticky to shift between the actual gears, gets a bit more clunky and eventually you can even get to the point where you are missing gears and you’ve got to adapt at going from 4th all the way to 6th because you've lost a gear late on in the race, so that’s one example of the kind of thing we are doing.

And that’s all tied to audio. You'll hear the transmission change over the course of the race and so on, so we've got that kind of very rich fidelity to the experience. What we are not doing this time, is pushing it to the simulation extreme where it's no longer fun, it all feeds into the game of being a racing driver.

RPS: Would you say that there is an expectation to warm up tyres, warm up brakes, things like that or is it "go", and you've started and the car is basically in its perfect condition?

Nicholson: We try and get you to be ready to go, so for example if you don’t qualify we'll hit you with a rolling start so your not having to do the warm up lap and get to that point.

You get all the drama of that qualifying lap without having to do that, and the same is true if you start the endurance race. It's a rolling start, and we do that because the real endurance racing uses that and also because that gets you straight to the point with the action, not all the pre-amble.

RPS: So there are qualifying sessions now, which is new from 1 and 2?

Moody: Correct, practise and qualifying for the race.

Nicholson: Again, it's very much splitting the overall framework of the game.

We’ve added in tuning and some degree of upgrades as well. Those sit in there because, for the career mode you’ll be seeing the better team have basically got more options for tuning the cars, so you can actually really get stuck into the cars set up for the race, adapt it for the track ahead of you and spend some time getting set up just right.

Moody: The other aspect of teams is that that you also have a teammate racing with you and we put some mechanics in around that as well.

One of the criticisms about our other games in the past is that the radio contact you get from your engineer has been too much, or the information has not been useful. So we’ve done two things: we’ve put an on-demand system for radio so you can call up information about how your teammates are doing or what the state of the car is, what damage there is, how far ahead the next driver is and things like that, gaps in front of you.

But also we’ve put in some low rate controls as to how your teammates should be performing, so you can ask him to push on, if you want to get a better, overall team result and to work his way up but obviously with the added risk that he might make a mistake if he’s doing that.

Alternatively you can ask the other guys to defend you so they can hold, or hold off traffic so you’ve got a chance to catch up or hold off other cars that are behind you so it's a really neat little thing that we’ve added, but again adds to the sense of depth we bring into the experience.

RPS: That sounds really interesting, I can't think of anybody else’s doing anything similar to that either.

Nicholson: It's this racing thing again, this idea that to be a racing driver in this career mode you race for a team, you have goals to achieve, and some of those goals are team goals, like to finish 4th in the team standing tables of the season.

So you’ve got to work with your teammates to achieve that and your engineer is keeping you above what you need to do.

So, that might be with endurance racing for example, you might need to say we're good where we are, don’t take any risks and I can back off, I can tell a teammate to back off, it's that sort of tactical side of racing, not necessarily just blitzing to be on the podium in every race.

It could be that if I'm racing for a lesser team and bring a car home in 6th with some battle damage in the process, I'd be absolutely over the moon about that, it doesn’t need to be 'win every race'. That makes it more interesting because as you work your way up through the teams you get an evolving kind of race experience, even within the same discipline of cars.

RPS: You talked about car set up, how detailed are you getting on that? I imagine you are abstracting a fair bit, like there’s not going to be damper settings but rather it'd just be general suspension settings?

Nicholson: Yeah, with Grid games we always try and make sure that you can't kind of break the game for yourself, so what we've got is sliders so we tune those to each discipline.

For example the street racing side of things is more to do with ride heights, suspension settings and that sort of thing. With open wheel it's more to do with things like downforce settings and brake settings and that kind of thing.

You want them all to be trade-offs, the reason for that is predominantly multiplayer but also balance in the career mode. It's all the real life trade-offs you’d expect. If you increase your downforce you’ve lost your top line speed, but you’ve increased your grip and so on.

In the multiplayer we have car XP, so your own individual cars and the longer you race with them the more XP you earn with that car and it unlocks more tuning and upgrade options as you go.

So you build an affinity with your cars, the longer you’ve raced with it the more you can tweak it and tune it to be exactly what you want it to be on race day. We still let you use all of the cars in the game on a loaner capacity, but owning a car allows you to achieve that.

RPS: Can that lead to unfair racing, if I go into a race with someone who has had a car for a couple of weeks longer than I have, even though I can drive it better than he can, he’s tuned it so therefore I can't compete?

Nicholson: No, that’s exactly what we've tried to avoid. We’ve had a few people ask internally actually, things like 'I want more upgrades on my car', 'I want boosts for my car' and that sort of thing, and that’s what we’ve been trying to avoid.

What we want is this ability for you to turn up in a loaned car or a newly purchased car and still be competitive, you’ve still got that chance, you’ve still got all the performances levels of the other racers on there, so you can still have a really good race. But if you have invested that amount of time you’ve just got that ability to nuance the set up of the car and get it setup just the way you like it.

And that might just give you the edge on race day. We're talking subtleties here, but nothing that is suddenly going to make me 2 seconds a lap faster than you or something like that.

RPS: I’ve just got two very quick last questions. The first, can I use an H-shifter and clutch?

Moody: Yes you can, both are supported, yes.

RPS: Good and also, last one, is cockpit view back? Or is it still missing.

Moody: It is back.

RPS: That is good news.

Moody: We wouldn’t have dared, I think, to not bring that back, after, you know, the fair degree of flack over the lack of that we took over that in Grid 2.

It was done with genuine good reasons for Grid 2. Grid 2 was a game which was aimed at a slightly broader audience, you know, we make no secret of the fact that with Autosport we are bringing it back, much more in line with the games from our heritage and for those guys that have really loved what we have done in the past so, yeah it's back.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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